Willie Nelson is an American icon. As a life-long Georgian, I have probably heard Willie’s version of “Georgia On My Mind” even more times than Ray Charles’ original. When I was younger, “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” was featured on a commercial with the snippet sung by Native Americans, and by gosh, I really thought this tune was sweeping the reservations. My gullibility aside, its hard to look at country music without noticing the meteor-sized impact that Nelson has made on the genre.
Willie Nelson is currently touring in support of his 2012 release Heroes which saw him collaborate with everyone from Merle Haggard and Jamey Johnson to Sheryl Crow and Snoop Lion. Nelson was due to swing through Atlanta’s northern suburb with Band of Horses on the Railroad Revival Tour in October before the tour’s untimely demise. He simply couldn’t forget about his core Atlanta faithful when he was penciling in The Tabernacle on his winter tour calendar.
The Falcons came up painfully short of punching their Super Bowl ticket against the 49ers a couple blocks away, and while the flood of fans streamed past the Tabernacle, a few had the clever idea of catching a double feature, letting Willie marinate their blues away. Outside of a healthy dose of Dirty Bird fanatics, the crowd tended to skew older. Many were decked out in their country best, a few saddled up in biker gear, but you couldn’t overlook the younger fans who were keeping the legend alive for the next generation.
Nelson’s son Lukas opened the evening with his band Promise of the Real. The youngster has an interesting sound. His vocals sound eerily like Willie before the years of age set in. Lukas didn’t just confine himself to opening duties; he also pulled double time, manning the electric guitar and backing vocals during dad’s set. I’d say your casual fan didn’t know Willie’s offspring was a pretty impressive musician in his own right, but they do now.
Once Willie Nelson took the stage in his cowboy hat and t-shirt, the crowd hit fever pitch. He may be closing in on 80, but the love and devotion from his followers has never waned. With the set list, he sampled across his wide catalog. There were a few off of Heroes including the pot anthem “Roll Me Up” and Pearl Jam cover “Just Breathe,” but he didn’t lean heavily on this material. Instead, he seemed to march out the classics. Tracks like “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” got the crowd amped up.
He did introduce us to his forthcoming album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, that is set for release March 5. “South of the Border” and the title track were tucked into the middle of the set. The audience response to these songs was tepid at best. A lot of chatter and talking could be overheard as he rolled out these down tempo numbers. Its tough to tell if the audience’s attention was strained because of a disinterest in the new songs or just the lack of the familiar, but once he opened up “Matchbox” the attention magically seemed to reappear.
Of course no trip to Georgia would be complete without Willie’s two signature tunes — “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Georgia on my Mind.” The rollicking “Fast Train” seemed to get the audience dancing. As for the immortal classic “Georgia on my Mind,” all I can say is Ray would be proud. I don’t think he would have picked anyone else to be the caretaker of his signature tune.
I have to say the best part of the evening was Willie’s collaboration with son, Lukas. Lukas was ever present throughout the set. He performed duets on tracks like “Just Breathe” and took the reins, showing off his considerable guitar chops, on the bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughan cover “Texas Flood.” It was almost like Willie sharing the stage with a much younger version of himself, and it added an extra richness to the flavor of the songs.
Willie Nelson is a legend for a reason. He puts on a damn good live show. At 79, he’s not going to bounce around the stage for fear of putting out a hip, but his voice still squeezes out every ounce of soul and his fingers move over the chords like it was second nature. Age is no obstacle to Willie Nelson. His love for his music will keep him walking out on that stage until the good Lord says its time for him to join the heavenly choir. Let’s hope he can continue to share his gift with his fans for many, many years to come.